Steller …

A man of action needs to be where the action is. Back in the 1700’s there was plenty to do in the Russian far east. Vitus Jonassen Bering, a Dane, had joined Peter the Great’s navy and in 1724 led an expedition that sailed north into the Arctic sea. This confirmed that Siberia was not attached to Alaska. Bad weather had hampered the expedition and there remained much to put on the charts, it led to a second expedition, once again commanded by Bering. This became an epic. It left St Petersburg in 1733 and didn’t get afloat until 1740.

Georg Wilhelm Steller was born in Windsheim, Germany in 1709. The original spelling of his surname was Stöhler  which subsequently became Stöller and ultimately was immortalised as Steller. He studied medicine, as well as theology, and the natural sciences including botany at the University of Wittenberg. He joined the Russian army and travelled to St Petersburg as a surgeon on a troop ship. There he left the army and laid the foundations of a career as a physician for the archbishop of Novgorod, married and continued his interest in natural history.

It was an exciting time to be interested in natural history, Linnaeus published Systema Naturae in 1735. Here was a method by which to organise the natural world, there was an enormous catalogue just waiting to be filled.

Steller volunteered to join the Great Northern Expedition and headed east. He left St Petersburg in January 1738 and reached Okhotsk and the main expedition in March 1740 as Bering’s ships the St. Peter and St. Paul were nearing completion. In September the expedition set sail. It was late in the season, the two ships rounded the Kamchatka Peninsula and laid up for the winter in Avacha Bay on the Pacific coast. Steller went ashore where he helped organize a local school and began exploring Kamchatka.

On June 4th 1741 the great adventure finally got under way, Bering commanded the  St. Peter, Aleksey Chirikov commanded the St. Paul. Steller was on the St Peter. Steller’s new companions may not have enjoyed his company much. Corey Ford tells the story in Where the Sea Breaks Its Back and describes him thus …

hypersensitive himself and yet insensitive to the feelings of others, indefatigable and brilliant but dogmatic and without tact, an irascible genius who lacked the saving grace of humility, and who was unable to tolerate any difference of opinion.

We could put it more bluntly, a genius but an arrogant prick. He and I have so much in common.

The ships were separated in stormy weather, Chirikov put some of the Aleutian Islands on the map. Bering stayed further south, Steller urged a more northerly course and when the wisdom of his advice was finally heeded the St Peter made landfall on Kayak Island, Alaska on July 29th  1741. Steller was the first ashore and was allowed a mere 10 hours to make his mark on North America’s natural history.

Which of course he did, Steller’s Jay. He recognised the similarity of this new Jay to the better known Blue Jay that he had read about, and deduced from the relationship that he was indeed in North America. He recorded the details in his journal, the bird was named in his honour after his death.

On the return journey the St Peter was driven ashore on what has become Bering Island. Storms had made it impossible to fix their position for more than a week. Land, believed to be the Kamchatka Peninsula but in reality one of the Commander Islands, was sighted on November 4th. That night in wild weather, the St Peter was swept over a reef and found itself in a lagoon from which there was no escape.

The next morning the crew landed. With their limited supplies they set about preparing their new home. It was to be a hard winter. Vitus Bering died on the 8th December, the cause usually being cited as scurvy but he was ill prior to the shipwreck. Twenty eight of his men followed him to the grave with scurvy rather more certainly to blame. Steller, meanwhile ate berries and fresh greens and encouraged others to do likewise.

Whilst the men filled their time beating off Arctic Foxes and gambling, Steller spent his beating off Arctic Foxes and studying the flora and fauna, including detailed observations of Steller’s Sea Cow; the only detailed observations because it was soon to be extinct.

In the spring the St Peter was stripped and a new boat built from the salvaged materials. The new St Peter sailed on August 13th 1742 and arrived in Petropavlosk 12 days later.

The glory, such as it was, had gone to Chirikov, commander of the St Paul. The crew of St Peter, it was assumed, had all perished. Peter the Great was dead, Empress Elizabeth had turned Russia in on itself, men of action from foreign parts were no longer welcome. Steller remained in Kamchatka, kept body and soul together teaching and by other odd jobs, and continued his studies. His writings made it back to civilisation but little of his collections survived.

His sympathies for the native people combined with his lack of tact towards their imperial overlords got him into strife. He was arrested for treason and sent towards St Petersburg, but exonerated and freed along the way, and, because communications were poor in those days, arrested again and freed again. Circumstance had led him to Tyumen in Siberia where he caught a fever and died. He was 35.

He wrote of himself, “I have fallen in love with nature”.

It was through his writings that he reached the outside world. He discovered scores of new plants, several new mammals, birds, even fish. His contribution has been recognised by the biologists that followed him in the names of things …

  • Steller’s eider (Polysticta stelleri)
  • Steller’s jay (Cyanocitta stelleri)
  • Steller’s sea eagle (Haliaeetus pelagicus)
  • Steller’s sea cow (Hydrodamalis gigas)
  • Steller’s sea lion (Eumetopias jubatus)
  • Whitespotted (or Steller’s) greenling (Hexagrammos stelleri )
  • Gumboot chiton (Cryptochiton stelleri)
  • Hoary mugwort (Artemisia stelleriana)
  • Stellera – (a genus in the Thymelaeaceae, a family of flowering plants)

The most magnificent of them all …

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Steller's Sea Eagle
Steller’s Sea Eagle

 

Rausu …

Time to head to the coast and the fishing port of Rausu.

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We were going to sea to get some stunning views of some eagles. We donned our life jackets, packed several trays of frozen fish, which meant that they were pretty much at ambient temperature and headed out onto the briny. The gulls were quick to take an interest, this is a regular event for them …

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But once we started throwing out the fish they were obliged to make way for the White-tailed Sea Eagles,

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and when the big guys show up, look out. Steller’s Sea Eagle was the bird I had come to Japan to see. On a previous trip I had been on a ship outside Petropavlosk. The Russian port authorities, perhaps because there were mainly Americans on board, had kept us waiting for hours. By the time we docked it was time to head straight to the airport. The only significant result of that was to deny some dollars to the local economy. I was not too upset, I spent the whole time looking for the world’s largest and most spectacular eagle. I would have stayed an extra day … in fact I would have needed to. None showed up. Going hungry improves the appetite, dipping on a bird sweetens the eventual sighting …

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Whilst back in the woods …

Hokkaido is a really cool place, literally, the year round average temperature is just 8°C. Trees are found up to about 1500 metres. In the lowlands there is deciduous forest dominated by Mongolian oak (Quercus mongolica) with dwarf bamboo (Sasa spp.) undergrowth. Above that the dominant forest cover is coniferous, mainly Asian spruce (Picea jezoensis) and various firs (Abies spp.). Where climate and landform suit agriculture the forest has been cleared and much of the remainder has been logged but there still seems plenty for most of the birds.

Eurasian Nuthatch
Eurasian Nuthatch

This one is right way up but the nuthatch is often seen creeping head first down the trunks of trees inspecting the bark for insects.

Eurasian Jay
Eurasian Jay
Greater Spotted Woodpecker
Greater Spotted Woodpecker

These three are old friends. Their range extends across Asia and Europe. As a kid growing up in England I could find all of them in the local forest.

This next guy is another example with which to illustrate Blakiston’s line. In the three large southern islands of Japan there is an endemic squirrel, funnily enough called the Japanese Squirrel (Sciurus lis). In Hokkaido, though, we find the Eurasian Red Squirrel. The local subspecies (Sciurus vulgaris orientis) has really cute ears. (The scientific term being auribus vere bellus).

Red Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris orientis)
Red Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris orientis)

Feeding Time …

The Red-crowned Crane is on the way back from the brink of extinction in Japan. Protection and active assistance have helped. In return the cranes have added to the local economy by becoming quite a tourist magnet. There are several crane reserves where supplemental feeding mean that good numbers can be seen and photographed in the winter. In the summer breeding season they are widely dispersed, harder to find and hard to approach.

At one of the reserves spring feeding includes fish, added protein to assist in breeding readiness.

Red-crowned Crane
Red-crowned Crane

A free feed is obviously going to attract other eager participants. There are two common crows in Japan, this is a Carrion Crow, the other is the Large-billed Crow which is easily distinguished by its steep forehead.

Carrion Crow
Carrion Crow

Also common and always happy to share food that it doesn’t have to catch for itself is the Black-eared Kite. In some taxonomies this is included in Milvus migrans, the widespread (including Australia) Black Kite.

Black-eared Kite
Black-eared Kite

But sharing top billing with the cranes, a large and very impressive eagle …

White-tailed Sea Eagle
White-tailed Sea Eagle

Kushiro Marsh …

After roosting in the river overnight, the Red-crowned Cranes fly out to the fields or into the marsh to feed. We followed them out into the marsh.

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Morning temperatures were around the minus twenty Centigrade mark. If there is moisture in the air it will freeze out as hoar frost …

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It transforms the country into a winter wonderland, a phenomenon familiar to many but we don’t see much of it in Australia! Conditions in the marsh suit the Sika deer and we saw several little groups of females and some youngsters.

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From a hill we had the marsh spread out below us and distant views of White-tailed and Steller’s Sea Eagles, but more of them later …

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